The Nanaimo River Estuary is the fifth largest estuary on the coast of B.C., and the largest on Vancouver Island. Fed by the two main branches of the Nanaimo River, the estuary lies between Duke Point and the south end of downtown Nanaimo. The land is home to the Snuneymuxw First Nations, and is used today for recreation and log storage. In the past two decades, the estuary has garnered renewed attention from First Nations, academics, and the general public, who are concerned for the future of this rich biological system.

In 2009, Steven Earle, a professor in the Earth Science department at VIU, heard from Pamela Shaw, a professor of Geography, about the issue of a sediment of unknown origins within the estuary. Earle brought the issue to his second-year Sedimentary Geology class as a research project.

“The intention of doing the work was to find out the origin of the black mud along the shore of the Snuneymuxw Reserve,” Earle says. “The original theory was that the black sediment probably came from log storage, and so we were looking for little bits of woody material, but didn’t find any and discovered that the black material was coal, not wood, and that it almost certainly came from the coal processing plant that was on the shore.”

For 108 years coal was the dominant industry in Nanaimo, and the driving force behind its expansion. The arrival of steamships on the West Coast in 1836 created the initial demand for coal. The Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) sent prospectors to Fort Rupert in 1849, but they were not successful in finding a viable coal seam. A year later Snuneymuxw Chief Che-wich-i-kan, often referred to as Coal Tyee, brought a canoe laden with coal from Nanaimo to Fort Victoria. The coal proved to be of high grade and in 1852, the first shipment from Nanaimo was loaded onto the HBC ship Cadborough. Over the next century Nanaimo coal was shipped to locations such as Vancouver, Victoria, San Francisco, Chile, Hawaii, and Alaska.

Three major coal seams were discovered in Nanaimo: the Wellington, Newcastle, and Douglas. The Douglas seam runs from the north part of Newcastle Island to south of the Nanaimo River. Several mines were built to tap into this seam in the vicinity of the estuary and river. The Reserve Mine, built in 1910, was located approximately two kilometres south of the estuary tide line, and 518 metres east of the Nanaimo River. A bridge was constructed across the river and coal was shipped out by train cart. Airborne particles and fragments likely fell into the river and washed downstream to the estuary.

In 1930 the mine closed down, but it reopened again in 1934. By this point it had flooded and the water had to be pumped out. Records on this event are scarce but it is reasonable to assume that the water, now laden with coal particles, was emptied into the nearby Nanaimo River.

According to a 1986 report by the B.C. Ministry of Energy, Mines, and Petroleum Resources, “Contamination of groundwater and surface waters may have downstream ramifications for a considerable distance from exploration and mining activities. Surface disturbance and waste dumping may increase sediment yields dramatically.”

The coal from the Reserve Mine was taken by train, past the Snuneymuxw Reserve to the No. 1 Esplanade mine, located approximately 680 metres north of the Snuneymuxw Reserve, on Milton Street, near the shore. The No. 1 was mined from 1881 until 1938 and produced 18 million tonnes of coal, the greatest amount of any Nanaimo mine. At the No. 1, coal from surrounding mines such as the Reserve, was separated from the tailings—excess materials such as waste rock—in preparation for sale and shipment. The exact process used is not well recorded, but it seems likely that the coal was first broken up and sorted on a shaking screen, where smaller pieces would fall through. According to J.T.O. Hepburn, Chief Engineer of the Reserve Mine at the time of its construction, the coal was dumped, “into washers at No 1. Mine. The dirt was washed out of it…” Small particles of coal would likely have been thrown out with these tailings.

“They had to grind the rock up—they had to do some crushing and grinding to separate the coal from the rock and that involved creating a lot of fine material. That very fine coal dust isn’t useable, so I think it just became wasted,” Earle says.

Two other mines were also in the estuary vicinity. The Douglas Old Slope Mine was located approximately 300 metres south-west of the estuary and operated from 1862 to 1886. The Douglas Slope Mine was built at Chase River, which flows into the estuary and was operated from 1874 until 1886.

The Nanaimo coal industry began to decline in the 1920s. Fuel sources were changing to other substances such as oil, and the remaining coal was now too deep to make it economically viable. In the early 1960s, Canadian Collieries, the owner of the Nanaimo mine system at that time, sold its assets to the American Plywood Company, who were interested in the timber on the lands. The days of Nanaimo coal were essentially over. In total, 50 million tonnes of coal were extracted during Nanaimo’s coal mining days, much of it in the area of the Nanaimo River and estuary.

Four decades later, Earle’s Geology class drove down to the Nanaimo estuary to investigate the source of the black mud. The class took 18 sediment samples from nine locations within the area, focusing primarily on the beach in front of the reserve. The samples were then analyzed through grain size analysis, microscopic observation, and determination of carbon content. The tests found that wood fragments were only abundant in a few of the samples, especially those in the central part of the estuary near the log booms. The samples taken from the beach in front of the reserve had very little wood, but were instead rich in fine coal fragments. The report also confirmed that apart from coal, the beach samples were comprised of sand made primarily from quartz. Without the coal it seems very likely that the beach would be sandy and light in colour.

The report suggests that, given the coal’s fine consistency it may have been, “dispersed by wind from sorting, processing, and ship-loading facilities in Nanaimo.”

The report recommends more sampling, including coring to several metres in depth and methods for dating samples.

“It’s something I’d like to do some more work on,” Earle says. “What has that done to the ecosystem? No one, as far as I know, has done any research on it. But what needs to be done is a comparative study of this bit of shoreline with something further along, a few hundred meters that way, where there isn’t a lot of black stuff—to see what the differences are.”

The Geology class presented their paper to a conference held in Nanaimo by the Pacific Estuarine Research Society, which operates along the entire west coast of North America. The research represents one more piece in the larger picture of how the estuary has been impacted by industry, and how much further research is needed in order to address these issues.

Let's Make Things Official

Get a curated list of articles sent directly to your email once a week. It’s not delivery, its Delissio